In Beasts, six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) exists on the brink of orphanhood, in a forgotten but defiant bayou community cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee. Buoyed by her childish optimism and extraordinary imagination, she believes that the natural order is in balance with the universe until a fierce storm changes her reality. Desperate to repair the structure of her world in order to save her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry), and sinking home, this tiny hero must learn to survive unstoppable catastrophes of epic proportions.
Together, Romer and Zeitlin created what Variety calls a "resonant score" that "lends real dignity to her [Hushpuppy's] oddysey."
"The score was built from the idea that the Bathtub [the fictional setting of Beasts] had its own 'Auld Lang Syne' or 'America the Beautiful' or 'We Are the Champions,'" said Zeitlin. "We needed an anthem to express the ferocious, resilient, triumphant mentality necessary to hold out at the end of the world."
The composers also wanted the film's score to reflect the point of view of its imaginative young heroine. Zeitlin continues, "When we made the score, we just thought, "What is Hushpuppy thinking about this situation?" Let's make music that would reflect what she thinks about what's happening," he said. "If we tried to score it from anybody else's point of view other than Hushpuppy's, it fell flat."
Working towards a shared vision is not new to Zeitlin and Romer, who have a history of collaboration.
"Benh has always composed with Dan," explains Michael Gottwald, producer of Beasts of the Southern Wild. "When they come together, they create something that is a product of both, not one or the other."
Zeitlin, who was in a grunge band as a teen, was working on his short film Egg when he first met Romer, who engineered the film score for the short. The next year the two collaborated to co-compose the music for Ray Tintori's award winning short Death to the Tin Man. They also wrote the score for Zeitlin's short epic Glory at Sea.
"I think Benh intentionally leaves parts of the film for music to fill in," described Romer. "And that's a great way to workto think that a piece of art isn't complete until every single creative part is there. If the film made sense without the music, then the music would be superfluous."
In addition to the original score, the composers searched for a Cajun band that could evoke the particular sound of the Bathtub, full of both verve and tradition. They found that in the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Grammy-nominated local group from Pilette, Louisiana. The legendary band combines the heritage music of their native Southern Louisiana with contemporary twists of rockabilly, punk and swing.
"We knew we wanted to have a Cajun band interwoven with the score," explained Romer. "In the very first scene, we had the idea of using the beautiful song 'Balfa Waltz,' then re-harmonize it with orchestral instruments to take it into another realm. We went down to Lafayette to record the Lost Bayou Ramblers doing it and it was incredible. The singer came in and I thought he was the assistant engineer, he looked so young. But then he opened his mouth and he has this big, gruff voice. They were amazing."
ABOUT THE COMPOSERS
Co-Composer Dan Romer is an acclaimed engineer, producer, mixer and composer. His artist credits include Jenny Owen Youngs, April Smith, Ingrid Michaelson, Lelia Broussard, Ian Axel, He Is We, Cara Salimando and Jukebox The Ghost. He has scored the award winning short films Glory at Sea and Death to the Tinman. Beasts of the Southern Wild is his first full-length feature film project.
Writer/Director/Co-Composer Benh Zeitlin is a filmmaker, composer, animator, and founding member of Court 13. His award-winning shorts include Egg, Origins of Electricity, I Get Wet, and Glory At Sea. Beasts of the Southern Wild is his feature debut. He lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, with a pack of wild animals.